It is a bit daunting to consider our 50th reunion at Corona del Mar High School (CdMHS) is coming up this summer. Talk about time flying by! It really does seem like just yesterday that I was hanging out with my CdMHS crowd. One of my very best friends during those four years was Jeff Zerkie. Zerkie was as sweet a man as I knew in High School. Everyone liked him. How could you not!? His heart was always in the right place. And yet, like me, he was always up for a little adventure if it brought out a good laugh.
I have gone on an intensive internet hunt for Zerkie for each CdMHS reunion to no avail. Last I knew, he had disappeared somewhere into Wyoming near Cheyenne, yet I could never get a beat on him. Until I ran across this:
Jeffrey Richard Zerkie passed away on March 11, 2022 at the age of 66 in Winnemucca, Nevada. He was born on July 6, 1955 to Charles Richard Zerkie and Maryon Lee Thompson in California. He is survived by his sisters, Sandra Walden and Barbara Bingaman and many other family members and friends.
Please send your condolences, photos, and comments to this site (above) to help us remember Zerkie. I have been in touch with Jeff’s sisters (Sandra and Barbara) and know it would warm their hearts to hear from any of his friends.
I last saw Jeff at our wedding in Newport Beach in 1991. I have a video of that ceremony, which shows him walking in and taking his seat just before it starts. You could see people around him murmuring, “That’s Jeff Zerkie,” as if he was a rock star from the past. In fact, he was.
Jeff had lived a lot of life up to that point, more than most of us will live in a lifetime. He went well beyond the cat with nine lives.
I could write a book on the shenanigans that Jeff and I engaged in during our high school days. Other than living just a few blocks from each other, we didn’t have much in common. Zerkie did not surf, follow the Dodgers, or “appear” to care much about girls. But whenever trouble was in the air, Zerkie seemed to be nearby. We were true partners in crime.
Here are two brief stories with Zerkie from our High School days. Please join in on the link above and tell more!
First was when Zerkie and I were teammates on the CdMHS Sophomore basketball team under the tutelage of Coach Al Colonico. Coach Colonico ran a firmly disciplined program (he was also a football coach). He was all business. If you screwed up on the court, Colonico was famous for grabbing you by the collar and claiming you were a “village idiot” for committing such a travesty.
Jeff did not get much playing time, as Colonico tended to save the “reserves” for when we had a commanding lead with less than a minute left to play. As a result, Zerkie mostly sat at the end of the bench, likely fearing he’d be called a village idiot for falling asleep! As the season wore on, Jeff suggested to me before one of our games that he was going to bring a box of Cracker Jacks to stay entertained during the game. I laughed but didn’t think he was serious. But he was! Zerkie ate the entire box (and opened the prize) without Colonico having a clue. We were all dying on the bench watching him sit back and enjoy every caramel kernel and peanut as if he was sitting at a Lakers game.
A second memory is one Jeff and I kept pretty quiet on over the years (for good reason!). We had a beer (or maybe two) one night and decided on the spur of the moment that we would streak the 5 Crowns Restaurant in town. We had zero experience in this area, but since streaking was in the headlines in 1974 (Academy Awards Show), we decided to make some local news in CdM.
As we entered the front door of 5 Crowns, we were both giddy with nervous energy and realized we had to run FAST. Jeff shot to the right into the bar, and I quickly went left into the restaurant. As I was racing a 5-minute-per-mile pace by tables to find my way out (with customers clapping as I went by), I suddenly found myself in the bar. The first thing I see is Jeff walking to the counter with the manager, who has his arm around Jeff, saying something to the effect of, “Let me buy you a drink!”
I immediately YELL, “Zerkie, we need to get out of here!”
Thankfully, Jeff wakes up to reality and agrees it is not time for a free drink. He follows me to the front door, where the hostess sees us coming and swings it open just in time for us to dash out without missing a stride.
The story gets better. Seventeen years later, Marla and I are holding the rehearsal dinner for our wedding at the 5 Crowns Restaurant. Somehow, word got out that I was “one of them…”. The story had gathered steam over the years, and soon, workers from the restaurant were coming by to meet me; some even told me they were there the night of the attack.
I don’t know where Jeff was on his faith journey, but I do know at one point in his life, he had committed himself to Jesus Christ.
There is a movie that came out this spring called “The Jesus Revolution,” which took place in Corona del Mar (Pirate’s Cove) during the period Jeff and I were hanging out there a lot. It is about the Jesus movement revival that took hold in southern California in the 1970s. Jeff became one of those Jesus Freaks for I can’t remember how long. But I do remember him being high as a kite over it.
There are so many other stories that I hope to retell with our classmates at this year’s reunion. I am saddened to think I can’t remember them with Jeff, but I am hopeful that we will have our reunion of all reunions to do that one day in heaven.
God bless you, Jeff. Thanks for all the great memories.
I look forward to seeing you on the other side.
————-Pictures of Jeff Zerkie——–
Recent picture at a favorite diner in Winnemucca
Jeff mailed me this photo after he enlisted in the U.S. Army. On the back, he wrote:
“I can mess you up bad.”
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” -John Kabat-Zinn
When Heaven comes calling, I expect to be there, and am counting on being able to surf. That vision has transformed my walk here on earth. Surfing in Heaven is my ultimate goal.
As a lifelong surfer, my world has been a series of waves rolling through life at varying intervals. Each wave is unique as it parades in a band of swells toward my beach of choice on any given day. Surfing, for me, has been all about the ride. One good ride can easily highlight my day or even my week. There is something extraordinary and exhilerating about paddling into a swell created deep in the ocean and riding its natural energy into the shore.
I often daydream of the perfect wave as I sit, testing my patience during the lull between sets. I fantasize that it will be my best ride ever, beyond epic. That vision keeps me searching the horizon for an early sign that it might be coming. When it does, I want to be ready! It will be a dream come true.
Growing up at the beach in Corona del Mar in the 1960s was an idyllic environment for a surfer grom like me. We were a tight-knit community of friends who gathered daily at the beach, constantly anticipating the next big south swell. Best of all, my dad was a surfer. He was one of the few who returned home unharmed from WWII and found a surfing lifestyle at Malibu while benefiting from the GI Bill. He had me out on his Dave Sweet surfboard riding waves at San Onofre earlier than I can recall. My time surfing with Dad on the weekends at San Onofre most influenced my early years of life. As I grew into adulthood, I realized that I was at my very best in the water on my surfboard. It became my identity. I am forever thankful for that special time in the water with dad.
The surfing culture I grew up with soon clashed with my adult career when I relocated to Silicon Valley in 1990 to become a cog in the high technology revolution, which was taking off like an Elon Musk rocket ship. The opportunities were endless, but so was the work! I found myself embedded in the innovation capital of the world, where there was no longer enough margin in my day to hang out at the beach and wait for waves. Life was full.
From floppy disks to flash memory over the next quarter-century, I found myself in a marketing career at Sun Microsystems and Oracle Corporation that paid me well to drive the network computing revolution for the emerging worldwide web. We even called ourselves “the dot in dot com” at Sun. Flying high in jet planes around the world, I was in a constant struggle to balance the demands of my career with the needs of my health and the joy of raising our young family, including my beautiful bride Marla (of more than 30 years) and two wonderful children (Marisa and Matthew).
Surfing became my escape from the incessant “real-time” processing of Silicon Valley. Like the pressure release valve at the San Onofre Nuclear power plant, the ocean set me free from the stress of my career while providing a connection point for my kids to join in, allowing me to pass my dads baton on to them. As this inner battle of work/life balance consumed me, I launched “Surfing for Balance in Silicon Valley” in 2014 to blog about my passion for keeping it all above water. That blog eventually led me to write this book, Surfing in Heaven, to offer what I have learned to a wider audience.
Surfing in Heaven is both a metaphor and a vision for how I invest my time and energy each day. It shifted my focus from the wave I was riding to the ultimate ride as a Christian to my eternal destination in Heaven. As I poured myself into the blog about my struggles to find balance, I kept coming back to the Bible and what God’s Word says about Heaven. Jesus often spoke about storing up treasures in Heaven rather than investing in what we have here on earth (1). Like the sharp sound of cymbals in a symphony, this rang out loud and true for me. By prayerfully starting each day with my eternal future in mind, I found myself able to navigate the many perilous waves I was riding. Heaven became a game-changer.
As the waves kept coming at me with increasingly shortened intervals, I was able to gain a radically new perspective on how I invested my time and energy. The chaos of the storm settled. It was like going back to the 1960s and surfing without a leash. My life became untethered from earthly expectations as I focused on my eternal future and what I had to learn along the way. The pressures of daily life were lifted. Laying the groundwork each day for my life to come in Heaven provided peace of mind. I was stoked!
My goal is to finish this life strong. When it ends, I believe I will go surfing, in Heaven. Surely the God who created the Heavens and the earth (2) could arrange for a bit of recreation up there. What awaits us in Heaven will be far greater than what our imagination can explore (3).
Waxing up a surfboard is an important, but often-overlooked component of surfing that helps to chronicle this time of preparation for the life to come. When I am going out to surf at Steamer Lane in a large northwest winter swell on a cold January day (Steamers at its best!), waxing up is a strategic time to get ready before paddling out. This process starts by closely reviewing the elements (surf, tide, wind, crowd, and currents) to determine my tactic for paddling out. Next, I select the appropriate style of wax (by water temperature) and thoroughly rub it onto the top of my board until it is covered from nose to tail. Finally, I firmly attach my leash and am ready to launch into the icy northern California water.
When I began surfing in the1960s, waxing up was much more involved. For one, longboards required a lot more wax. Without surf leashes, waxing up was critical to hanging on to your surfboard. Parowax (called “paraffin”) was the only choice for wax and was a far cry from today’s sticky surf wax. Paraffin was hard as a rock, so you first had to soften it up in the sun to avoid shaving off the wax that was already there. Then you would dip your board into the ocean to harden the surface wax while roughing it up with wet sand. Applying the paraffin required serious elbow grease, being careful to cover the nose (for hanging five), the tail (for cranking bottom turns), and the rails by the nose (for turtle diving big waves as you paddled out). Extra wax was needed there.
I would then walk the top of my board a few times with bare feet at the edge of the shore to get some of the wax onto the bottom of my feet (there were no booties back then) while rubbing in more wet sand to rough the surface one final time. I carried an extra bar in my trunks, as you had to repeat the process a time or two if you were out for a long surf session—especially if you lost your board to the beach (the ride in would slicken the wax). Suffice it to say, paraffin was better suited for candle-making!
Like properly waxing up for a good surfing session, I believe in this life, we are laying the groundwork for our life to come in Heaven. In a sense, it’s our dress rehearsal. We are waxing up for our eternal ride home. This is not our home; Heaven is our final destination. Our life here is very short (4), but what we do while we are here really does matter (5). Big time. Jesus emphasized this to His disciples at the last supper just before His death when He told them He was preparing a mansion for each one of them in Heaven (6). He is doing the same for each one of us.
I hope you can embrace my journey while catching a few waves with me along the way. When you kick out of your final wave, I pray that you will see that Jesus Christ is whom He said he is.
Time to get out your wax and prepare for the ride of your life!
“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” -James 4:14b (NIV)
American evangelist Billy Graham (1918-2018) was asked what the biggest surprise in his life had been. He quickly replied, “The brevity of life. Almost before we know it, the years have passed, and life is almost over.”(1)
My life has flown by. It seems like just yesterday I was out surfing San Onofre with Dad on my Corky Carroll “Super Mini” surfboard. Before I know it, heaven will soon be calling! In the meantime, I try and put my trust in God to help me navigate the peaks and valleys on the road ahead. Finishing strong in God’s eyes is my goal. I am preparing for a life with him forever in heaven.
A surfer who rides a wave to its proper completion with a successful kick-out has a similar anticipation of finishing strong. The kick-out enables you to surf your way out of the wave with a true sense of completion to the ride you were on, leaving you in control of your destiny for your next ride. The kickout transitions you from the wave you were riding to paddling back out. It is not a simple maneuver in surfing. Especially if you are riding a longboard.(2)
Before the advent of the surf leash (and subsequent shortboard revolution) in the late 1960s(3), knowing how to kick-out was a fundamental requirement for serious surfing. You could judge a surfer’s ability solely by the effectiveness of their kick-outs. The better the kick-out, the better a surfer they are (almost without exception). The more skilled surfers had figured out that a good kick-out got you more waves, as you were quickly back out into the lineup.
Kicking out is nearly a lost art in surfing today. I rarely see a surfer cleanly exit the wave they are riding to go over the lip with momentum in the right direction for a quick paddle back out (while checking for any waves coming).
With surf leashes ruling the lineups today, it is more common to see a surfer end a ride by simply diving or jumping off their board into the white water without concern for losing their surfboard. It works, but it would be more likely to score points in a diving competition than in a surfing contest. The term “kook cord” (for the surf leash) can be attributed partly to those types of kick-outs. The style and finesse of surfing are completely lost.
Competing in the San Onofre Surfing Contest in the 1960s taught me the proper technique of the kick-out. The judges rewarded surfers who could properly execute a clean and controlled kick-out. Kicking out at the right place and time of a ride demonstrated good judgment while controlling your board to exit the wave cleanly. Extra points could be attained for a high degree of difficulty when exiting with your board from a wave which was closing out or breaking in a critical section. Kicking out was your final act to demonstrate your surfing abilities to the judges. A missed kick-out could involve a time-consuming swim back to the beach and paddle back out. At San Onofre, that would usually spell disaster for your chances to advance to the next round.
Kicking Out in Life
Finishing strong in the life we have been given here on earth means seeking God to the very end.(4) That is God’s idea of a successful kick-out. He wants to see a life well lived, denying self, and trusting in Him. When we get to the end of this ride on earth, the love of Christ that awaits us will surpass all knowledge. We are truly unable to form a mental image of how good it will be. So, we carry on in this life, longing to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” at heaven’s gate.
I was working at Trader Joe’s on May 9th of 2020 when a fellow crew member told me that a 26-year-old surfer had been fatally attacked by a shark while surfing at Sand Dollar Beach, just south of Manresa State Beach (near Santa Cruz). My son Matthew and I surf at Sand Dollar, and I knew he had been there the day before. I immediately called Matt’s cell phone. It went to voicemail. I then called his work. After what felt like an eternity on hold, he picked up the phone and greeted me. So grateful.
The victim was a local Santa Cruz surfer and shaper, Ben Kelly. Thinking it was my son, even if just for a minute, gave me insight into the unimaginable pain that Ben’s family and friends were going through.
I soon learned more about Ben and was deeply touched by his story. Ben was a seasoned surfer and board shaper who started his own surfboard company in Santa Cruz (Ben Kelly Surfboards). He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Vanguard University in Southern California, where he was awarded the McNaughton Award, its highest honor for business and management students. He had recently celebrated his third wedding anniversary with his wife, Katie, whom he met at Vanguard.
Ben was stoked about the life God had given him. He was active in the Capitola Village Business Improvement Association, Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, and Calvary Chapel in Capitola. At one point he was selling surfboards to support missionary work he was involved with in Africa.
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors declared that May 21 (Ben’s birthday) would be “Ben Kelly Day.” The proclamation stated:
“Ben practiced his belief that surfing was so much more than just catching waves — it was about the people he met and the continuous grand adventures that made it fun while blessing others along the way.”
Walking the Talk
I had never met Ben, and only came upon his story through surfing. Yet, he rose for me as the modern day equivalent of “the greatest generation”(6). Ben’s love of Jesus was front and center in the life he was living. He had that surfer’s “stoke” about him, which some called his good vibes, but those close to him knew it was fed by his faith.
Ben did not just talk about his faith; he exemplified it through his character. In the words of a close friend, “Ben lived the way Christ wanted us to live.” His opening line on his LinkedIn account boldly demonstrated this (“About”):
“Hello my name is Ben Kelly. Some of my life passions include: a love for my Savior Jesus Christ …”
Ben was not hiding whom he believed would save him on his day of reckoning.(7) He finished strong. In the book of Matthew, Jesus spoke about the importance of doing God’s will to reveal His love and presence in the world:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”
―Matthew 7:21 (NIV)
Jesus called us to embrace the words of Scripture, so they are central to our day-to-day living. He said true wisdom is all about actions of love, mercy, and peace(8). It is not enough to say “Lord, Lord.”
Ben Kelly has both inspired and challenged me in this respect. Though he never saw it coming, Ben Kelly kicked out of this life with full control over his destiny. He had hope in a God who created the heavens and the earth. He wanted to live his life honoring God, knowing his rewards would be in heaven. His future was secure, and his kick-out was perfect. I believe God gave him a ten!
Ben has motivated me to finish strong. I look forward to the day I can paddle out with him.
This is the last chapter of this book!
The process of writing Surfing in Heaven over the past year has been transformational for me. My views on life have been altered, and as you can surely tell, I am looking forward to heaven. There is a song that captures this feeling best for me called “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, written by Helen Howarth Lemmel in 1918. It states that, “when you turn your eyes upon Jesus, the things of the earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”
Please contact me with any comment or questions that this book may have triggered (at: surfingforbalance.com). I would love to speak with you.
Source: Just as I Am: Autobiography of Billy Graham by Billy Graham
Longboards are generally considered to be surfboards over nine feet long. The difference in navigating a successful kick-out is dramatic. For example, dad rode a 10’9″ Bob Simmons Plywood Foam surfboard (called a “Foam Sandwich”) at Malibu in the late 1940s (see: surfingforbalance.com). To effectively kick-out on that board, dad learned the technique of dragging a foot over the side of the board to act as a rudder (as you would with a paddle on a kayak). It didn’t just turn out of the wave on its own.
Philippians 3:14 (TLB):
“I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us.”
Matthew 25:23 (NIV):
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
One tribute read at Ben’s memorial service stated: “The most memorable thing about Ben was his unashamed, unrelenting passion for his faith and his relationship with Jesus. I don’t say this to somehow selfishly reassure myself or others that he’s passed on to Heaven. I don’t have to wonder whether he knew Jesus, or whether his faith was secure. It was. Everybody knew it. He truly lived his faith out. In nearly every conversation I ever had with him, he tied God and the redeeming love of Jesus into it.”
James 3:17-18 (NIV):
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
In the late 1940s when Dad surfed Malibu with his small band of friends who were lucky enough to have returned home from World War II (2), he told me he never went surfing in the winter. They did not have wetsuits then, so it was too cold to paddle out! Anyone who knew Dad would vouch for his hostility toward cold water (or weather for that matter). After fleeing the cold winters of Newport Beach to move to Kona in the 1980s, he would even tell us the winters in Kona were getting cold. He would ask for house slippers and sweatshirts for Christmas to stay warm.
Dad described standing on the beach at Malibu on a cold winter day, watching near-perfect waves rolling in without a single surfer in the water. That image has stuck with me. I fantasize about what it would have been like to paddle out in my toasty O’Neill wetsuit to have Malibu to myself back then. Just thinking about it gets me stoked.
It would have been a surfer’s paradise.
For me, heaven brings that surfing paradise into sight. I can envision waves better than Malibu peeling off perfectly without a soul in the water. I am giddy with anticipation to paddle out. Getting a clearer picture of my future in heaven has completely changed my perspective on life. For a God who moves mountains (3), waves in the world hereafter seem to be within reach.
Rewards in Heaven
In Jesus’ final hours with His disciples before His death, He told them He was preparing a mansion for each one of them in heaven (6), and that they would have great rewards waiting for them when they got there (7). I believe my mansion in heaven will be near a beach, and my rewards will include surfing. That seems like an easy one for a God who created it all (8). To put it from a surfer’s perspective, if Kelly Slater (11-time world champion surfer) can create a near-perfect 6-foot barreling wave in a desert in California’s Central Valley (kswaveco.com), could not our great God fulfill the promise of heaven with something even better? I am betting on it and looking forward to getting wet as soon as I get there! Grab your wax; I am excited in anticipation that you will be with me for the ride.
My portrayal undoubtedly will fall far short of the experience heaven will offer. Nothing in our human experience can reach the divine joy and beauty awaiting us there. I pray that this gives you hope and the will to accept God’s gift to ensure you will be there to paddle out with me.
Jesus’ final dying words to the thief who was hanging on the cross next to Him provides the perfect opening:
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
My Imperfect Sketch
My fascination with this idea has been running wild in my mind for years. In my zeal to envision what awaits me, a sketch came together of how my odyssey will go. It flowed naturally and feels right. In the words of Rebecca Ruter Springer (5),
“I submit this imperfect sketch of a most perfect vision.”
My time has come.
The angels arrive to bring me home. Without thought, I float up and away from my physical body, looking down on my family as I assimilate a complete timeline of my life on earth. Vivid images of home, family, friends, relatives, and so much more flow through me as I soak in the experiences they provided. Moving up and away faster than light can travel, childhood memories I had forgotten come back as vividly as the day they happened. Each recollection is like a giant Kodachrome slideshow. Tranquility envelops me as I see each moment in its perfect place. I am at peace and joyful. It is right with my soul. I am grateful for God’s hand in every part of it.
My sense of time disappears as my faithful Grandma Oa appears before me. Oh my! She is so young and beautiful, with her smile beaming at me. I am delighted to see her younger than I knew her.
“I am so glad to welcome you, Mike,” she says. “Everyone is very excited to see you!”
I know why without asking. Grandma faithfully prayed for me for many years. Tears of joy come to my eyes as I hug her. It goes beyond words to let her know how miraculous it is to see her again. We tightly embrace, feeling the love of God between us. Words are exchanged without talking. It’s as if we know each other’s thoughts before we think them. Our communication is perfect. There is no misunderstanding. Everything is right.
She leads me down a long path of the most beautiful grass I have ever seen–a brilliant shade of green that rivals the fairways at Pebble Beach. It feels like velvet under my feet as we walk together. A wondrous variety of plants and flowers surround us, so bright and colorful that I want to stop and inspect each one. They are perfect and appear freshly-bloomed. Everything is pure and clean as if bathed in an afternoon shower. Tall, majestic trees tower above us with hanging branches like weeping willows laden with flowers of every variety and color imaginable. Beyond the trees, I see orchards of ripe fruit-bearing trees with a translucent river meandering through. Waterfalls roar in the distance from lush mountains capped with white snow. Small birds in the trees are singing joyous songs of heaven’s praise. They drench me with their melodies from above like a mountain thunderstorm. It is breathtaking. The music embraces my soul as I behold an overwhelming feeling of harmony with nature (9). I have never felt more alive in my life.
I want to stop and explore the depth of what I am experiencing, but we continue walking, almost floating among this stunning scenery. I marvel at the perfection; a master gardener is in charge. We reach a rushing creek with water as clear as crystal running over brilliant stones of gold, silver, jasper, emerald, and pearl—even more stones than I can identify. It’s as if a pirate’s treasure chest has poured into the stream’s bed. Beautiful soft music soothes my spirit as we wade along the creek. It is a most breathtaking scene. Time is irrelevant. I could walk here forever.
The sky above is overflowing with brilliant colors, brighter than a noonday sun. Yet, I see no sun. A golden radiance fills the atmosphere like the afterglow of a brilliant sunset , although more intense. Grandma and I are not talking, yet our communication is complete. She knows what I am feeling. “It is well, Mike,” she reassures me. It is well.
Our path opens onto a massive beach with sand like freshly fallen snow. I pause to contemplate how it could be. The sand is warm and sneaks between my toes to nuzzle and comfort me. The air is soft and balmy, giving me energy and vitality. A light breeze feathers my face. I want to lie down and soak all this in, as I would in my youth on a hot day at Big Corona State Beach, where I grew up.
As we cross the sand with freshly-laid footprints, I see a structure that reminds me of the surf shack I’ve known so well at the San Onofre Surfing Club. Its design is perfect, with beautiful wooden surfboards lined across the side and a large white cross on top of a humble wooden steeple. I feel myself being drawn to it as we walk.
Approaching the structure, I see it is made from living trees that resemble palm trees growing in the sand. Their leaves naturally cover the roof, allowing the right amount of light inside. Dazzling multicolored flowers like Hawaiian leis grow from the tree limbs and branches. They are intricately woven around the steeple and roof. The air is full of sweet smells like gardenias, which engulf me as I am lured inside.
Euphoria overwhelms me as a hoard of family and friends are there to welcome me. It is the finest homecoming party ever! One by one, they greet and embrace me in mutual joy and wonder of shared experiences. Words cannot describe my feelings. I see mom; how glorious she looks! Her smile and laugh knock me over with emotions. We embrace as never before. Then Grandpa Cannon, Aunt Kathryn. Grandma Mary and Grandpa John wrap me in their arms! It’s as if they all have been friends forever. Then Aunt Sallye and Aunt Norma, my delight is breathtaking. Friends from our church, our former pastor Doug Goins, and even a classmate who passed away in junior high school, Scott Lusher. Holy cow!
Then I see the coach himself, John Wooden. Oh my! He looks at me with that Coach Wooden sparkle in his eye and says, once again,
“The most important thing in the world is family and love.”
Everyone is jubilant. The feeling of love consumes me. We gather in the delight of it all for longer than I know as more people continue to arrive. Even our dogs Riley and Redwood playfully push their way through the many people to nuzzle me with cold, wet noses, tails wagging with zeal for a scratch. I immediately roll onto the ground to grab them in playful hugs. Nothing could be better. I hear the words singing in my soul,
“His love endures forever.” (9)
Time stands still. Nobody is rushed or in a hurry to leave. I have lived my whole life for this. It is really heaven!
Surfing in Heaven
Beyond our gathering, I notice the ocean beyond with perfect eight-foot tubes curling in. Whoa!
I move in that direction, savoring the warmth of the sand on my toes. Nearing the water’s edge, I see three surfboards lying in the sand. I am overwhelmed by the scene before me. Angels are singing my praises to God.
I look up to see Dad next to his Bob Simmons surfboard. We embrace. Joyful tears run down my cheeks. He is healthy and robust with a tan as dark as a native Hawaiian. I am so glad to see him. Without speaking, he tells me he is sorry. Words cannot express my wonder and joy. There are no longer any barriers between us. It all makes sense now.
Next to Dad is my uncle Charles, his face painted like a Māori warrior, looking as if he is right off the mission fields of New Zealand, strong and full of energy. His board must be twelve feet long of the most beautiful, laminated woods I have ever seen. It is polished to a shiny gloss and looks like a surfboard Duke Kahanamoku would gloat over. He tells me that Dad taught him to surf and then calls out to me in his Māori tongue:
“Me haere ki te ngaru Mike!”.
I somehow know he said, “Let’s go surfing, Mike!”
Dad hands me the third surfboard and I am aghast to see my Hobie Corky Carroll “Super Mini” model that he bought me at the Hobie Surf Shop in San Clemente in 1968. What? It’s as new as the day we picked it up, with the exact blue, yellow, and green acid splash color design. The bright colors radiate between the pure white foam. This thing would glow in the dark! Picking it up, I realize it is lighter than any surfboard I have ever held. I can’t wait to catch my first wave on it. It is ready to go. I call back to them,
“Cowabunga dudes, let’s go surfing!”
Surfing in heaven? You must be kidding me!
It is a dream come true.
Gazing out, I see a long strand of glittering ivory-white sand extending to the horizon with perfect waves rolling in like clockwork on both sides of the strand; right-facing waves on the left and left-facing waves on the right. I watch the waves on both sides, stupefied. Unbelievably clean barrels are peeling off in succession for as far as I can see. The wave is a flawless combination of a point-break shoulder with a reef-break curl. I could not imagine a more ideal surfing spot. It is too good to be true.
“Lefts or rights?” I call out to them as we pick up our boards. In saying that, I quickly realize that we can go either way—there is no such thing as a goofy foot in heaven. I laugh out loud.
Stepping into the water, its clarity immediately catches me as it washes over my legs. As I wade out, I see a bright, multicolored coral reef with a myriad of neon-colored fish hoovering over the rocks under the crystal-clear water. I pause to comprehend it all while pinching my arm to remind myself that this is not a dream. I am going surfing in heaven.
The three of us are a picture of God’s provision as we beam smiles of joy in anticipation of what we know is coming. “Yeehaw!” I call out as the first wave rolls over me with a sweet smell and flavor. Its taste refreshes me as my body rinses completely dry like water off a duck’s back. Huh? Paddling over my next wave, I am sprayed by a feathering lip that trails a spectacular rainbow of colors in its wake.
Looking down, I notice I’m wearing my yellow “Hang Ten” surf trunks from my grammar school days in Corona del Mar. I chuckle, thinking how much I love them.
We quickly stroke around the breaking sections with Uncle Charles leading the way. I joke to Uncle Charles and Dad as we crest over yet another feathering lip,
“Only in heaven would I let that one go by!”
The white water explodes in brilliant white light as each wave breaks, as if light-emitting plankton are creating the light of day in the foam. The contrast with the exceptionally clear water is literally out of this world, like painting daylight onto a nocturnal night sky. I gasp at the beauty of it all before me and give the glory to God:
“His love endures forever.” (10)
Paddling beyond the impact zone, I can see no end to the strand of bleached white sand, with waves breaking on the horizon as far as I can see. Only when I decide to sit on my board to pause and take it all in does it hit me that everything in heaven is interrelated. It blows my mind.
Below me is an extraordinary collection of colored plants, fish, and rock emitting light rays as bright as daylight. It reminds me of a coral reef in Hawaii, but so much more intense and vivid. I can’t take my eyes off it. Dad and Charles are laughing as they see the grin on my face.
Dad calls out, “It’s as if the earth was a black-and-white movie, Michael.”
I can’t resist diving off my board into the depth of the rejuvenating water. Astonished, I can see perfectly and continue to breathe and talk underwater. “This is crazy!” I shout. Fish of unimaginable varieties and colors swim up to me as if they are a part of the homecoming party. I swim to the surface to tell Charles and Dad about my discovery.
They call back, “Welcome to heaven, Mike!”
Sitting on my board, I can see this is a surfing photographer’s dream, yet taking pictures no longer matters. The golden glory of the sky is powerful without any heat or sense that I could get sunburned. Clouds of unimaginable variety streak the stratosphere like a Matisse painting with colors I have never seen. I am at total peace to know I am home. I lift my voice to praise God for it. Heaven is way more than I had imagined.
Time is lost, but irrelevant. There are no boundaries around how long I have been out. The ocean and I are one.
“His love endures forever.” (10)
I look up to see Dad crossing a beautiful deep blue breaking wave that is well overhead and feathering a rainbow of vivid color behind him. He drags his foot off the tail of his Simmons Foam Sandwich to make a sweeping bottom turn and lets out a loud hoot as he sails by me, drawing a straight line across the face of the crystalline water. It is a sight to behold. My dad, ripping across an eight-foot wall on a 1940s vintage balsa surfboard. I howl at him, “Yeehaw!”
Behind him, seven blazing-white pelicans with gold-tipped wings appear in perfect formation, gliding just above the lip of the next wave. They are telling me “this is my wave!” Swiveling my board around in eager anticipation, I push off, and suddenly am flying down the smooth face of a double overhead wall of brilliant clear water. The pelicans sweep into view, marking that my time to surf in heaven has come.
I stand up and realize my balance is solid, and my feet are gripping my board, as if with booties. There’s no fear of falling. I howl praises to God,
“How great thou art, Lord!”
Screaming across the towering face of the wave feels like I am racing downhill from the top of a snow-covered mountain on skis. The brilliance of the sea life underwater lights my path as I lean right and carve a long, effortless bottom turn. My speed thrusts forward like the afterburners on a jet plane as I stare down the thick lip of the wave ahead, knowing I will make it.
I begin carving up and down the wave in total confidence of my abilities when seven pure white dolphins propel into my wave from behind, as if waiting for me. They cruise in formation leading the way like an escort of military fighter jets. They are guardian angels, magnificent in size and beautiful. In and out of the wave together, they gaze at me and know my every move. The symmetry and elegance of their surfing prowess are beyond words. I follow them turn for turn as we ride along the shore of the strand. They laugh, and I laugh. We make more turns than I can count. We share the perfect harmony in God’s eternal creation.
The wave transforms into a soft Steamer Lane-style shoulder as I jet out ahead of the break to carve a roundhouse cutback that makes a complete half-circle around the dolphins, back toward the curl. My trail is marked in the brilliant white light of the foam. The dolphin’s launch into the air in perfect formation as I fly by their glimmering hulks.
Cranking a floater off the white-water lip turns me back into the building face as the dolphins shepherd me into the next section of the wave as my momentum jets forward. The sand is glimmering in the shore break as I streak by faster than ever before on a surfboard, catching a glimpse of dad watching from the shack in his beach chair. He beams a broad smile as I consider how many times he watched me over my life.
The Green Room
Then it happens. In an instant, everything around me turns a glorious shade of green as the double overhead curl completely covers me, as if the wave is closing out. I center myself into the barrel of the wave, perfectly balanced as I ride inside a tunnel of green water. As I speed ahead, all fear washes away. It is my destiny to be here. My physical and spiritual body have become one with the energy of the wave. Joy overwhelms me as I realize this wave is beyond anything I have ever experienced on earth. It’s as if I am in slow motion, almost floating, as the surge of the wave carries me deeper into a brilliant cloud of green spray. A bright light leads me forward as I am humbled by God’s everlasting love. I sense every atom in my being. It is nirvana. I have never felt better. Thank you, God! Why did I doubt? Words cannot describe my connection to The Creator of it all. Like Moses at the burning bush, I am standing on holy ground. (11)
“His love endures forever.” (10)
Unaware of how long I am in there, I am next airborne, launching out of the green room as if I were shot from a circus cannon on my board. I hear the wave exploding behind me as I land softly onto the shoulder and look around to understand it all. The back spray showers me with warm rain drops. An ear-to-ear grin is frozen on my face. I can’t digest what just happened. My soul is at peace. My joy is complete.
The Hodads will have to hear about this one! The green room is much more than I could ever have imagined. I want to go back in, but the wave keeps me accelerating forward.
The dolphins take another jump in unison as they kick out from the back of the wave while I try and reflect on it all. I hear the praises of their work from above:
“Angels, from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story,
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth” (12)
Gliding across the shoulder onto open water like a water skier on Lake Tahoe, I leave the breaking section of the wave behind at full speed, as if I am kicking out. Yet my speed continues as I crank another turn on the glassy open water. I see mom watching from the shack with her patented Charlene smile, looking like she is at Malibu in the 1950s. I make my final cut back on flat water toward shore that carries me onto the warm white sand as the cool crystal water rushes up the beach.
I feel more at home than ever before. All my worries, anxieties, and concerns are lost. Finally, I can rest. This is where I belong. Hallelujah to our Lord of creation!
I ponder how the reality of heaven changes everything. This is the life that God planned. Oh, how my life on earth would have changed if I had seen the glory of what God had waiting for me. I am overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, and love for a God who could provide such perfection. I want to go and shout the truth to every surfer I know.
Colossians 3:2 (TLB) becomes my mantra:
“Let heaven fill your thoughts; don’t spend your time worrying about things down here.”
Matthew 21:21 (NIV):
“Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”
Revelation 22:21-25 (NIV):
“And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.”
Author of: “Intra Muros, My Dream of Heaven,” 1898. Rebecca Ruter Springer captured a unique atmosphere of life in heaven like no other book I have come across. Published 120 years ago, she writes of an experience she had of going to heaven while seriously ill in a care home in Kentville, Illinois.
John 14:2 (KJV):
“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
Genesis 1:1 (NIV):
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. ”
Job 12:7-10 (NIV):
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind.
Psalm 136 (NIV):
“His love endures forever.”(Repeated 26 times in Psalm 136)
Exodus 3:1-5 (NIV):
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire, it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” ”
“Contact Mike” at surfingforbalance.com if you want to know more about heaven or if you would like a list of books I recommend on heaven.
Will there be seas in heaven?
Revelation 21 (the second-to-the last chapter in the Bible) describes how Jesus sets up his kingdom of heaven on the New Earth and calls it the “New Jerusalem.” This New Jerusalem is where believers will spend eternity with God in their resurrected bodies. In essence, heaven returns to earth with Jesus as our King.
This chapter contains a detailed description of what this “New Jerusalem” will look like, including this statement about the absence of a sea:
“and there was no longer any sea on the new earth.” – Revelation 21:1 (NIV)
Throughout Scripture, the “sea” is symbolic of chaos and disorder, which will be absent in the New Jerusalem. Many Bible scholars believe this is the meaning of Revelation 21:1; the turbulence of our present age on earth will no longer be present in the New Jerusalem. We will be at peace in heaven.
Even if we assume this statement means that all saltwater seas are removed from the earth in New Jerusalem, it does not necessarily mean that all large bodies of water and beaches are gone. For example, the book of Revelation speaks of a great river flowing right through the New Jerusalem:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.” – Revelation 22:1-2a (NIV)
Surely that river has a source and a destination which ends in a large body of water. Perhaps there will be lakes like we have on earth today. Larger lakes act as freshwater oceans on the New Earth. The Great Lakes region of North America is an example. As we have today, the opportunity for waves to ride on a surfboard seems feasible.
In his book Heaven, Randy Alcorn makes an additional argument for having large bodies of water in heaven:
“Another reason I believe the New Earth will have large bodies of water is that, as I argue in chapter 39, the same animals that inhabit our current planet will inhabit the New Earth. Most animal species live underwater, not on land, and most of those live in the ocean. (It would certainly be no problem for God to refashion such creatures to live in freshwater.).”
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
Psalm 46:10 (NIV)
We planted a red rose bush in our front yard when my dear mom passed away in January 2007. Anyone who knew Char was aware of her passion for the color red. That rose bush has been in full bloom on her birthday every year since. It has been a remarkable reminder to me of her spirit. Yet often, I zoom in or out of our driveway, too hurried to take notice of the latest bloom, let alone pause for a few seconds to savor the fragrant aroma. I am too stressed out for that.
Growing up in Corona del Mar in the 1960s, I don’t think the word “stress” was in my vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong; I had my challenges. It was mostly around money. Our family never seemed to have much. My parents grew up during the depression and knew how to get by on almost nothing. Dad was especially good at this. I can remember my grandmother (mom’s side) visiting from Utah and exclaiming that there were no groceries in the house!
Today, my kids tell me that stress is in their DNA. It is unavoidable. I get stressed just thinking about their stress. I think we all would agree that stress is a byproduct of living in today’s world. So much seems to be out of whack. In surfing terms, life can be gnarly!
One only needs to look at our children in the school system today to see the depth of our predicament. Their challenges are earthshaking compared to what we faced at that age. How is it that grammar school students have to worry about a mass shooting at their school? (1) Middle school students today are questioning their gender identity! (2) College students are increasingly turning to suicide (3). We have a high school in our backyard that has a suicide rate that is four times higher than the national average. That is not something anyone wants to discuss, including the media.
I meet many parents and teachers from this high school while working at Trader Joe’s, and everything I see tells me they are doing a great job with these kids. But that does not remove the burden. The anxiety associated with living in today’s world is literally killing us.
We need a way to cope. “Slowing Down” (4) is a part of it, and having “Marathon Faith” (5) can surely help the long-term view.
But I need to get through today!
A valuable tool for dealing with our burdensome world is learning to pay attention to the moment you are in. “Being present” is a nonjudgmental phrase allowing yourself to experience the here and now. Another common term is mindfulness, which Wikipedia defines as “The awareness that can emerge from paying attention to the present moment”(6). It’s about being in control of your life.
We miss so much about ourselves in a day because of our desire for forward motion. As human beings, we are constantly striving to improve and get ahead in life. But amid our forward progress, we tend to miss what we feel in our innermost being.
“Sitting” is a simple form of being present that I often recommend to my coaching clients as a practice for learning to pause in the midst of their hectic and chaotic lives. I discovered the sitting practice in my training to become a New Ventures West “Integral Coach” (7). Our instructor requested that we spend thirty minutes every day sitting for the entire year of our training. Thirty minutes a day seemed far-fetched to me. I quickly did the math to tell the instructor that he was crazy if he thought I had a surplus of 182 hours this year to sit!
Fast-forward one year. Sitting had become a personal highlight of the training class for me. I worked up to thirty minutes a day in quiet solitude and found that time to be transformative in developing myself as a human being who could help others find themselves. Sitting allowed me the freedom to connect with my spiritual center while feeding my soul in the stillness. I cannot recommend it enough (even if it is for just five minutes a day to start out).
“How wonderful it is to have a moment in time where we don’t have to be anyone.” – Anonymous
Today I practice a daily ritual of sitting in the early morning for fifteen to twenty minutes. I make a cup of green tea and then retreat into my “sanctuary” in the dark quiet of dawn. This time spent alone in perfect peace calms my heart for whatever God has in store for me that day. I have always felt that prayer should be a two-way conversation with God. Sitting provides me the margin to listen to what God might have to say. I come out of these sessions feeling refreshed and encouraged, with a sense of purpose around the upcoming day. The days when I have to miss my sitting practice (which are rare), are often the days I feel the most out-of-tune with the world around me.
Sitting in the Surf
Depending on the interval and size of the waves, sitting can be a critical skill for surfing. It isn’t easy to properly position the surfboard for an incoming wave if you cannot effectively sit upright while doing the eggbeater with your legs for balance. I am always amused when we take a first-timer out to learn how to surf, only to realize how difficult it is for them to simply sit upright on the board in the water. I have to contain my desire to burst out in laughter as they continually tip over, trying to find equilibrium on the board. Learning to sit on a surfboard can be a humbling experience.
I will admit, I am not naturally inclined to just sit on my board in the water, waiting for a wave. I get a bit anxious during a long lull between sets. If there is a wave anywhere on the beach, I am likely to paddle after it. Isn’t that the point of surfing—to catch waves? Yet, as I have grown in years and matured, I am learning to appreciate that time seated on my board. It can be a rewarding meditative experience. In my stillness, I sense the presence of God amid His amazing creation around me.
Recently, my son Matthew and I were out at Pleasure Point (Santa Cruz) at sunset, and I experienced sitting on my board in a special way. I paddled into a space where no other surfers were around me. As I scanned the horizon for waves, I was able to appreciate the beauty around me as the sun began its disappearing act below a thin line of clouds on the horizon. The streaked cirrus clouds above me began to light up with bright orange and yellow behind a darkening blue sky. An endless bathtub of dark magenta-colored salt water carried me into another world as I listened to sea otters cracking open their fresh seafood dinner in the distance. The lull synthesized my sense of peace and tranquility as if I was floating above it all. A seal quietly popped his head above water to greet me, just a few feet away, as if on cue. I settled into my sitting pose to soak in the unfolding experience as if I were watching a movie all around me. I did not have to be anyone. I only had to be. God was speaking. I was all ears.
I began to enjoy the lull and hoped it would last. I wanted to grab onto this moment and keep it forever! I had stopped to smell the roses, and it was heavenly.
“Peace” – Sitting tandem with Mark Magiera; San Onofre, July 18, 1991
What Is Sitting?
Sitting is a simple skill that involves focusing your mind on the present.
Sitting is a practice of observing and discovering our true nature in the here and now.
Sitting is like exercising a muscle you’ve never worked out before. It takes consistent practice to get comfortable.
You do not have to believe anything to do sitting – it does not exclude any religion.
How to “Sit”:
Find a quiet and private place where you can be comfortable and free from distractions.
Sit in an upright posture with a straight back in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Place your hand’s palms down on your thighs; be relaxed yet dignified.
With your eyes open, let your gaze rest comfortably as you look slightly downward about six feet in front of you (you can close your eyes if there is a visual distraction).
Take a few deep breaths, and feel the contact points between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting–feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
Bring your awareness to your breath. Do not change your breathing; begin to observe it without controlling its pace or intensity. Simply breathe naturally.
Focus your attention on how the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage, and belly.
If your mind wanders with thoughts, sensations, or emotions, gently let them come in and then release them with an exhale. Return your focus to your breath.
As the time comes to a close, sit for a minute to become aware of where you are. Then get up gradually.
Do this for 4-5 minutes at a time to start, and then gradually increase the time as you get more comfortable. Be patient with yourself. Like any new skill, it will take practice.
The focus of “Integral” Coaching (a New Ventures West trademark) is not as much about being more effective or accomplished in the world (the “what” and the “how” of life), although that often will come about. The intent is to assess the individual and design a program that provides freedom in their being; in “who” they are in the world. I call this “developing the individual.” This process is unique to each person I coach and typically takes a minimum of 3-6 months (meeting bi-weekly) to get deeply connected to the “Integral” Coaching approach. The outcome of this process is for the client to achieve long-term excellence with an ability to self-correct along the way to stay on track for whom they want to be in life.
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
-Bronnie Ware (1)
While the world’s first microprocessor (2) was catalyzing the personal computer revolution in Silicon Valley, the sport of surfing was forever changed by the invention of the surf leash. I was a sophomore in high school when I first saw a surf leash in action while surfing at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas. I was stupefied! Tying your foot to your surfboard with a rubber cord virtually eliminated all repercussions of wiping out on a wave. It seemed criminal to me. Yet it quickly became a de facto standard for surfers, helping drive a significant transformation of the sport over the next decade. Most in the water today have never surfed without a leash.
Before the leash, surfing not only mandated good swimming and paddling skills, but also required a more cautious approach to the wave you were riding. If you fell and lost your board, the backlash could include a long swim in (after some cussing and swearing), paddling back out against incoming waves, and potentially an afternoon in your garage doing ding repair (if rocks or other surfboards got involved). Growing up surfing in the 60s included a lot of swimming, paddling, and ding repair. It was how we learned!
Pat O’Neill, son of acclaimed wetsuit inventor Jack O’Neill, is generally acknowledged for inventing the modern surf leash in 1971.(3) In those days, a lost board at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz meant almost certain death on the rocks, so it is easy to understand his motivation. The surf leash is also how Jack O’Neill lost his left eye. The early versions were made from a coiled surgical cord that would shoot the board back like a bullet after a wipeout. Ouch! I imagine Jack shouldered his share of, “You’ll shoot your eye out” jokes with that one. (4)
An early version of the surf leash poked out Jack O’Neill’s eye!
The surf leash helped spawn an avant-garde generation of shortboard surfers fashioning a new style of surfing that required minimal foot movement on the board and maximum body language above the waist. Suddenly, the hot surfers were wiggling like a hula-hooper to slash and tear up and down the face of the wave on boards that were barely any taller than they were. There was no penalty for trying something beyond your ability, as you could immediately try it again. The result was a dramatic shiftin what became possible on a wave.
Like Intel’s first microprocessor, the surf leash had its skeptics. For those of us who had grown up surfing longboards without a leash in the 60s, this major innovation to the sport was not all good news. If you liked to freely walk up and down the board while riding a wave, strapping on the leash was analogous to attaching a chain and ball to your leg. Mobility on the board was limited, as there was a tendency to tangle with the cord and/or step on the cord with your bare feet if you did move.
The leash also negated the thrill of trying not to fall while riding a more challenging section of a wave. There were no serious consequences to falling, so why not try something crazy? Kicking out of a wave was a technically advanced skill before the leash (with longboards). With the leash, a swan dive was now just as effective in exiting a wave. I likened it to the safety net for the flying trapeze artists at the circus. The success of any given move did not look so formidable once you realized they weren’t going to die if they fell.
We quickly labeled it the “kook cord,” and agreed among our inner circle not to use it. Most troublesome was the increase in crowds that developed, as nobody had to swim in for their board if they fell. It brought out people at breaks who had no right to be surfing there. Getting outmatched by a wave and paying the price with a swim to shore and paddle back out was not only good tutoring, but also great for those in the lineup waiting for the next set. At a place like San Onofre, it could take thirty minutes for someone who had lost their board to reappear into the lineup.
My daughter Marisa navigating the rock dance with her leash at San Onofre.
However, it soon became apparent that I would lose quickly in the game of improving my surfing if I went without it. That caught my attention. Of course, I wanted to be the best surfer in the water, and there was no denying that the leash gave you more time to ride waves. As soon as I noticed someone pass me by with a new maneuver, I caved in and sheepishly strapped the shackle onto my ankle.
When wave and crowd conditions allow, I still do sometimes paddle out without a leash. A sense of freedom and excitement immediately washes over me. It’s like removing the seat belt and rolling down the windows in my car on a bluebird day. Caution is in the air, but I feel free as a bird. Nostalgia sets in. This is how surfing was meant to be. There is an excitement of risk in trying to “hang five,” knowing I could lose contact with my board by falling. I can move up and down the board without hindrance or fear of getting tangled. My surfboard becomes a part of me that I hold onto at all costs. The stoke of a long ride without a leash takes on greater joy, lifting me to kick out with a howl. My soul is awakened in the triumph. It takes me back to my roots and reminds me how the ocean has been a part of my growing and learning as a human being. One day I will look back and realize that each fall and subsequent swim to shore was a part of God’s plan for my life.
Taking off the Leash in Life
After 25 years in several high-tech sales and marketing jobs in Silicon Valley (Chapter 12, New Beginnings), I took a year off to complete a rigorous training program with twenty other classmates to become a New Ventures West Integral Coach® (a life coach). At our graduation, we each had a moment to express what those twelve months meant to us. My summation of the twelve months was that it taught me how to surf without a leash. Unleashing from the security of my high-tech job (and paycheck) had provided me the freedom to live a life truer to myself as opposed to the life the world expected of me. I had discovered that ridingthe Silicon Valley Express train had me so wound up on a daily basis that I had lost track of who I was. I didn’t have time for that!
A big part of learning to be a life coach was learning how to be present. For me, that meant slowing down. A lot.
Amid my busyness, I saw my life passing me by. I was checking off all the boxes to earn a living, support my family, and care for my health. Yet, in that struggle, I had lost touch with who I was. The New Ventures West coaching program provided me the opportunity to paddle out without my leash. A new awareness began to wash over me. It was refreshing and new!
What I had experienced was clarified in a book I read, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bronnie Ware. It is a memoir about Bronnie’s journey to self-discovery, which led her to care for the needs of the dying. Her life was transformed by that experience of tending to those who were in their final days on this earth. I admired Bronnie’s honesty about too many years doing unfulfilling work and how she was able to break that mold to live the life she felt she was called to. It is a simple retelling of how one can learn to listen carefully to our internal compass.
That twelve-month break from the Silicon Valley juggernaut allowed me to experience the liberation of who I was. It was not easy; I fell a lot and still do. Yet learning to enjoy the swim and gaining strength from the paddle back out sharpened my understanding of who I was inside. I learned to listen deeply to what God’s plan for my life is. It is a marvelous and life-changing experience that continues to evolve as I move forward today.
After graduating from New Ventures West, I left my high technology job behind and found a second career at Trader Joe’s.
“The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing” by Bronnie Ware Here is a quick recap of the “Top Five Regrets”:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
2. The world’s first microprocessor (a complete central processing unit on a single chip) was introduced by Intel in March of 1971 (Intel 4044). This eventually led to the development of the personal computer (PC).
4. In the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s request to get an official Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot air rifle for Christmas is countered by his mother (and Santa Claus) with, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”.
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” -John Lennon
If there ever were a perfect sunset, Dad (A.K.A. “Kona Jack”) surely would have seen it over his 27 years at the Keauhou Kona Surf and Racquet Club on the big island of Hawaii. It was a nightly ritual for him to collect with neighbors on the shore’s edge to stare down the sun as it dipped into the royal blue Pacific Ocean. As the glazed orange ball reached its final glimmer, all eyes were peeled for a “green flash” at the horizon’s edge as a final tribute to the day. With the curtain closing and the skies darkening above, Dad would always have a conclusive comment to abruptly move everyone out of their reverie so he could go about his evening:
“Ah, another day in paradise!”
Dad slipped gracefully from this life on the night of a full “Strawberry moon” in 2016 on Father’s Day (1). I was on my bicycle en route to work at Oracle when the call from my sister Terry came in. In a flash, the world stopped turning. My life had taken a monumental turn. I had known it was coming, but could not fathom the feelings that surfaced.
Dad was a man’s man, and I lucked out by being his boy. Life with Dad just happened. We didn’t talk things out. We mostly just hung out doing what guys do together, primarily around sports and exercise. He taught me most of what I know about surfing, skiing, and tennis. I don’t mean that he instructed me; that definitely was not Dad. He was about being together and doing whatever it was we were doing; not much needed to be said. Later in life I came to appreciate the deep wisdom Dad had imparted to me over the years. I wouldn’t trade that time with him for anything. He took me to school on how to truly relax and enjoy life. That was my lesson from him that I treasured most.
The Bible is crystal clear on the joy and peace that await those who place their faith in Jesus. I don’t know if that includes Dad. On my last visit with him in Kona I was able to share my Christian faith and communicate to him how simple it would be to accept Jesus into his heart. That was not easy for me to do. We watched a video together to get him thinking about heaven. He did not say much, but appeared receptive to what I was saying. It rests in God’s hands.
I often dream about being reunited with Dad in the prime of his life in heaven. It would be a wondrous homecoming. I imagine, of course, he is going to say,
“Michael, let’s go surfing!”.
Until then, I hope that I can have as much of an influence on people as Dad did on his friends and family. Somehow, Dad seemed to rub off on everyone, including people he would seemingly completely ignore. Everyone who knew Dad would agree that he left a mark that won’t soon be forgotten.
Following are a few of the areas from Dad’s legacy that his grandchildren should take note of. I like to think of it as passing the baton to Marisa, Matthew, Brennan, and Hayley. These are all quite simple—not anything that would surprise those who knew Dad. But the combination of them together is what sets Dad apart. He lived each one of them to the fullest.
“Six lessons for the grandchildren,” from Kona Jack
1 – Keep your sense of humor.
This may be the single most important of all!
Dad was hysterical with his many dry and humorous comments that always seemed to come when you least expected it. He had a fantastic wit and was not afraid to use it on anyone. Most importantly, it didn’t wane at all as he launched into some challenging times in his eighties. Dad was a walking comedy act that I appreciate now more than ever.
On my last trip to Kona before he passed, I had come to assist him after he took a serious spill walking down a steep hill from the KTA market with a full bag of groceries (in his flip-flops!). He was quite bandaged up head to toe and not moving too well when I arrived. His first comment to me was:
“I’ve lost my swagger, Michael.”
I couldn’t have said it any better.
His first request was to drive into town for a haircut at his regular barber. I had been there many times. As we approached the barbershop, Dad shuffled slowly in as a customer held the door open and patiently waited for him to get by. The guy was looking at him and his bandages with obvious curiosity and sympathy (along with everyone else) when suddenly, out of nowhere, Dad looked up at him and blurted out,
“You should see the OTHER guy!”
The man holding the door was pausing to process what the heck Dad was talking about when it hit me as I was taking a seat. I was laughing so hard that I almost started to cry. Dad just shuffled up to the barber chair and sat down as if nothing had happened. The barber knew him well and took it in stride as he began dressing him for his haircut.
Dad was not a letter writer, but he was famous for his sticky notes on stuff he would send you in the mail. Often, they were written on a card or piece of paper that he would reuse. He wasn’t one to waste paper. Here’s one he wrote across an article he sent me:
“Hey, it’s not all wine and roses over here! This can be a very tough life, especially if you’re in your late, late eighties. I messed up cutting these articles out of the paper, but I’m sure you’ll get the drift. Dad”
Another sticky note on a rather lengthy New Yorker article he sent me about Apple and the upcoming iWatch launch: “ Mike – I don’t want to over burden you with too much shop talk, but thought this might be of interest. It’s a little long and drawn, but does have its highlights, and it’s a good inside look into Apple’s modus operandi. In any event, you’re stuck with it! P.S. For your appreciation of my sending it, you can give me an Apple watch for Father’s Day.”
This one was written on a copy of the Santa Monica High School alumni newsletter, which included some photographs of his classmates:
“Mike: I have enclosed 2 Xerox’s from the recent Viking news, which is a quarterly published for SMHS alumni. One is a recent picture of Charlie French, which I thought you would like to see. The other caught my eye because I knew everyone involved from my Malibu days. Dave Rochlen is the founder of Jams, and Peter Cole and Buzzy Trent were famous big wave riders (Buzzy looks like he had a couple of 20 footers break on him).”
And looking at the picture of Buzzy, I had to agree!
2 — Sleep trumps diet.
A key to Dad’s long and physically active life was his ability to sleep anywhere at any time. He regularly took two naps a day and never (that I remember) had a hard time getting a full night’s sleep. I will never forget one incident on the day Marla and I got married. I came into the bedroom to get the tuxedo on and found him flat on his back, taking a nap. I thought he was kidding at first, but with his hearing aids out, I could hardly wake him up!
Dad’s sleep habits also seemed to counterbalance his daily nutritional habits, which were not healthy by any standard. He should have written a book on how to live a long and healthy life while eating and drinking anything you want.
My favorite story was the trip we took back to Kona from Queens Medical Center in Honolulu after surgery to install a stent in one artery. The surgeon had ordered him on a low-fat, low-sodium diet and told him not to lift anything over ten pounds for two weeks. He repeated the last one three times! We were driving back to Dad’s place from the Kona airport when he had me stop at one of his favorite restaurants along the way (“Michael, pull over here!”). I was not surprised when he ordered a giant schooner of draft beer and a large plate of french fries. Of course, he salted the fries heavily and covered them with ketchup.
Picking my words carefully, when I mentioned that the schooner probably weighed over ten pounds (deciding to ignore the rest), he looked at me like I had gone mad. I will never forget that gaze as he held the giant glass mug with both hands visibly shaking as he lifted it to his lips. It was as if I had threatened to turn off his air!
And, of course, there was Dad’s infamous grocery list. Here’s one he gave Marisa for her trip to KTA one day:
– Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream, Ranch-style Doritos, Eye of the Hawk beer, Laughing Cow cheese, Frosted Flakes, Half n Half, Snickers bar.
On a thank you note he sent Terry, he outlined what would likely happen to him if money were no object in Kona:
“Terry, I want you to know that I had a big time blowing away your gift certificate at Drysdale’s: 1 beer, 3 Rob Roy’s, 1 Stinger on the rocks, and the Shrimp basket. So thanks a lot. I hope I can repay you if you make it over in December.”
Surely, he slept better than ever that night!
3 — Keep life simple.
Everyone who knew Dad was envious of how he had simplified his life. He had boiled his world down to the bare essentials. He should have won an environmental achievement award for having the lowest carbon footprint in the state of Hawaii. We all have a lot to learn from him in this area.
On the day I took dad to Los Angeles airport for his move to Kona from Newport Beach (Park Newport apartments), I came to the shocking realization that he was serious about simplifying. He told me he had sold everything for the move, including his car. When he got into my car with a single (small!) suitcase for his flight and nothing else, it hit me.
“Dad, where’s your stuff? Did you ship it?”
His quick reply:
“This is it, Michael. I got rid of everything.”
And he stayed that way. Dad never succumbed to a life of possessions and complexity. Including never again owning a car. His unit #29 at the Keauhou Surf & Racquet Club was a perfect example of that. A couple of $3.99 plastic Wal-Mart chairs around a $4.99 plastic Wal-Mart table was the only furniture he needed. He didn’t seem to mind that we all had to stand around to talk with him when we visited. I think he liked that you would never stay long if you didn’t have somewhere to sit. I tried to buy him a Lazy Boy chair several times to help him get his feet up.
“If I want to lay down, I’ll just go out to the pool!” he quickly shot back.
Dad’s fantastic ability to keep life simple and avoid the stress attached to the things we accumulate was genuinely something to be admired. Here’s another note he wrote us on the back of his race number for the Keahou 5K run, effectively reusing the race number as a notecard:
“Hi Gang: I picked up my race booty, which consisted of two T-shirts in addition to the race shirt (I may not leave much money, but I’ll leave a lot of T-shirts,) a twelve dollar gift certificate at Drysdales (that’s 3 Rob Roy’s), and a medallion on a blue ribbon…. The weather has been great. Highs in lo 80’s; lo’s in high 60’s with afternoon clouds and no vog. The snow bunnies are real happy!”
And yes, he did leave us lots of T-shirts.
4 – Exercise for life!
One quality that most influenced me was Dad’s example with consistent exercise throughout his entire life. This was one of the few areas where he did offer advice as we were growing up. Dad believed exercise was a true fountain of youth, whether it was his tennis, surfing, skiing, or even jumping rope in the living room. And he was living proof that it worked!
This note on the back of a reused Christmas card says it all:
“Life here goes on! Following is my current schedule: – Monday: work 9-12:30. Tennis 3-5. – Tuesday: Bike to the village. Coffee at the Pub. Work out at the club and a run. Bike back to the pool. – Wednesday: Tennis 2-4. – Thursday: same as Tuesday – Friday: same as Monday – Saturday: same as Tuesday and Thursday – Sunday: rest it up at pool. Tennis 3-5. Of course there are variations, but not many. I’m sure you get the idea! Love, Jack”
5 — Enjoy life.
Everyone who knew Dad agreed that he set the stage for enjoying life. Whether it was a brilliant Kona sunset, cold beer, or a well-played football game on TV, he enjoyed it to the fullest and let everyone around him know. It was a fun quality of his that I miss a great deal. Dad never let work distract him from taking pleasure in life and kept a keen eye on those who did the same. No question that a part of this has propelled me into the work/life balance coaching arena.
Here’s an insightful comment he made about Bob Simmons, a fellow Malibu surfing pioneer, in a note to me about a recent surf auction of a Simmons surfboard for $40,000:
“This is the same board I’m riding in the Malibu photo. I’m not sure how many of these Simmons made, but don’t think it could be more than 5 or so. I can only remember seeing one other that was owned by Jim Arness. Bob was anything but a grinder when it came to making boards and never let work interfere with his surfing. There seems to be a lot of money out there for old surf collectibles. I may be sitting on a fortune!”
Dad was not a complainer. Later in life, when the speed bumps (as he called them) started showing up, he would still find pleasure in the midst of it. Don’t get me wrong; he let you know if he didn’t like something or if something had not gone well. He never dwelled on it and soon was making light of it after.
When we made a trip back to Queens Medical Center in Honolulu for his bladder cancer surgery, he had to carry a catheter bag with him along the way. I could not believe how he kept his spirits up and maintained a sense of humor about it all. I was cringing at the sight of him carrying the catheter bag when we came to airport security and he (of course) got pulled aside for the complete shakedown treatment by the TSA agents. He kept looking at me with an “are you kidding me” look on his face as they patted him down.
“I need a beer Michael,” was his first comment as he rejoined me. I’ll never forget that beer. He took a long draw from the cold, wet mug, and belted out:
“Ahhhhh, that’s a good one, Michael.”
I was looking at him and wondering how he possibly could be enjoying a beer right now? Yet he savored it as if it was going to be his last!
6 — It’s OK to be sentimental.
The family all knew about Dad’s goodbyes. They were painful for those of us who were trying to leave from a visit with him. I dreaded it every trip, as he always fell apart and started to cry when it was time to say goodbye. My last trip over was the worst of all. It was as if he knew he would not see me again, finally just telling me to leave.
The point I think he would make for the grandkids is not to hold your emotions in, but to let them out. I wish I could be more like that. Here are a couple more of his sticky notes as evidence.
This one is regarding a blog I had written about my San Onofre experience with him growing up:
“Mike, this is pretty good. I must confess your re-capitulation of a trip to SanO brought tears to my eyes. I’ve out-grown my motion sickness, but it doesn’t look like I’ll ever outgrow my sentimentality, which I for sure inherited from my father.”
In the mid-80s, Dad had taken a three-week solo trip to Australia in which the airline (Quantis) lost his luggage on the flight over. We were surprised to find a detailed daily journal he kept from that trip where he periodically lamented over the loss and its impact on his emotions. His final entry in the journal:
“Checked with Qantas about my suitcase and no luck. Someone else is wearing my snappy clothes and it pisses me off to no end!
And finally, a birthday card (not reused) he sent me shortly after college (early ‘80s):
“Hi Mike – They do roll around awfully fast don’t they. I hope you have or had a real good one! This is one birthday that always sneaks up on me. I am watching the U of U – San Jose St. basketball game from Utah and couldn’t help but have a flash-back to your graduation. You can be real proud of what you accomplished then, and what you have accomplished since. To put it mildly, you have done quite well; and I’m a very proud father.
Utah seems to have one of their better teams and I cant look at Tarkanian without thinking of Woody [our tax accountant – who did in fact look like him!]. “Fresno State has a 26 to 11 lead and the Utah coach is having kittens! Love, Grandpa Jack”
All told, dad’s life was a bit of a fairy tale. The “strawberry moon” on the day of his passing is the nickname for June’s full moon, which coincides with the summer solstice. According to AccuWeather.com, the last time these two phenomena coincided was back in 1967, and it won’t happen again until 2062. I would venture to guess that it has been even longer since it fell on Father’s Day.
Dad passed away just four months shy of his 90th birthday. He had just spent Father’s Day with his daughter Terry, and her husband, Bob Hankenson. They went out for his favorite meal of fish and chips and his favorite cocktail, a Rob Roy served “up with a twist.” To top it off, sitting on the table in his dining room was the day’s crossword puzzle in the Honolulu Advertiser with every box filled in!
“Don’t give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you.” – Coach John Wooden
When my wife Marla asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday (many moons ago), my immediate thought was not to give up on my lifelong dream of filming a surfing movie. Ever since the evaporation of our “Mexican Miracle” video in Mazatlán (in 1972), I had continued to envision starring with my best surfing buddies in a surfing movie.
I immediately moved into action. My birthday is in January, so Steamer Lane was a logical spot to film it. The lane is the place to be when the rain-soaked Pacific storms bring thick and powerfully consistent surf into Monterey Bay that time of year. It is also an ideal venue for filming from the cliffs above, where you can easily perch and capture the surfers as they go by.
On my last three birthdays at Steamer Lane, I rode big waves that never seemed to end. I was like a kid coming into a candy shop—giddy with anticipation of what was to come! The call went out to a few close friends I knew would be stoked to join in. We booked a cottage at Seascape Resort in Aptos (jacuzzi required) for the birthday weekend and began searching for a cinematographer. I asked each of the megastar surfers to bring their big wave quiver, a CD of their favorite surf tunes from the 60s, and photographs to document their surfing history. I took the project a bit more seriously, anthologizing a 25-page term paper with photos and footnotes galore. That document turned out to be the genesis of my blog on surfingforbalance.com (in 2014). And that led to this book!
The surfing celebrities
John Davis[i] – John was my one and only Silicon Valley high-tech surfing bro at Sun Microsystems. Ten years my senior, John and his wife Deb built their dream surf chalet on 38th Street in Santa Cruz with a quiver room for surfboards and a hot outdoor shower with a bench seat to help extract the wetsuit. I am eternally indebted to them for that shower; it is the only way I can get out of my wetsuit on a cold winter day at Pleasure Point.
Mark Magiera – I grew up with Mark in CdM (since 3rd grade), crossed ski tracks in Utah, and then lived together after college in CdM. We shared many surfing safaris over the years, including a trip to Hollister Ranch that Mark invited me on in the late 1960s. We camped in Brian Blumer’s VW bus on the bluff at “Lefts and Rights,” which was about as good as it got! Unfortunately, Mark had a conflict and missed our weekend of filming.
John Park – As the founder of Clear Spirit Surfboards, John frequented San Onofre with my dad and me back in the late 1960s when surfing was all we thought about (well, almost). Johnny led me on surfing adventures in Baja back in the seventies and eighties and was a member of the infamous “Mexican Miracle” trip to Mazatlán in 1972.
Jack Schott – Jack was another former roommate who shared many epic days with me surfing, as well as being my loyal tennis partner. Jack was the best surfer I knew and always seemed to stay out longer and catch more waves than I did, despite having ten years on me. He came down with a horrible cold on HODADS weekend, sitting out one day, and then borrowing a 7mm deep-dive wetsuit to get in for some action the second day. He still out-surfed us! Jack continues to surf today into his late seventies (on a short board!).
Gary Irving[ii] – Gary was a rare find as a local Santa Cruz artist/photographer who joined in as our Hodads cinematographer and producer. He was an answer to my prayers. Gary immediately understood what we were trying to accomplish and proceeded to invest untold hours into the final production, giving it the vital spark it needed. Considering the lack of surf that weekend, Gary did a spectacular job producing what will be remembered as the surf movie to end all surf movies (pun intended).
Despite many objections from the peanut gallery, I held firm on naming our movie “HODADS,” a term to describe a surfer without much skill. When you bring together five surfers whose combined ages cover some 270 years, it would be serious HODAD surfing, whether we wanted to admit it or not. The title stuck.
Gary filmed HODADS[iii] on the weekend of January 14th, 2005. As luck would have it, we had a freak lull in the surf in Santa Cruz for that entire weekend. Steamer Lane was so flat that there was not a single surfer in the water on Saturday. I could not believe it! We decided to invite Gary and his camera into our Seascape cottage with unlimited pizza and beer to spend the day recording each of us recalling our glory days surfing. We had many laughs jabbing at each other as we took our turn on camera. On Sunday, Gary let us in on a secret spot in Monterey Bay that “always had surf.” He was right! We ended up filming a couple of decent surf sessions at that secret spot.
HODADS was a dream come true for me. It turned out better than I could have wished, largely because of the extra time we had to film each of our personal histories with surfing. Those scenes Gary filmed in our hotel room are a treasure to pass on to the next generation. It was all about being stoked with good friends, sharing precious memories, and enjoying God’s magnificent creation in the process.
In 2015 we held an informal 10-year reunion of HODADS to rekindle some of that good karma. Somehow, we ended up having lunch at the Spanish Bay Inn at Pebble Beach instead of surfing, although our boards were strapped on the roof for action. The two 70-year-olds assured me that had nothing to do with our age.
In the end, I’ll rest peacefully in heaven knowing I finally got my surf movie.
[i] On our second day of filming, John Davis was not feeling well and not catching waves. He left suddenly and drove home shivering and feeling some chest pain. He soon was in the Emergency room at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, diagnosed with a heart attack. He had an angiogram that day to install a stent in the blocked artery. Thankfully, he was fine and in good spirits and continued to surf Pleasure Point into his late seventies.
[ii] I lost touch with Gary Irving shortly after our movie was produced. Unbeknownst to us, later that year in 2005, Gary married actor Paul Newman’s daughter, Nell Newman. He never mentioned that one!
[iii] The full-length DVD that Gary Irving produced is available for special order through “surfingforbalance.com” (click “Contact Mike”). There is an abbreviated version of the full-length DVD available for viewing online at:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.” -John 16:33 (NIV)
Quitting the Corona del Mar High School basketball team my junior year is one regret in life that has lingered. I showed up late for a Saturday practice (the surf had been good), and coach Tandy Gillis made sure that I would not want to do that again. And I didn’t. At the end of practice, I sheepishly told him I was quitting. Enough already. I was seventeen years old and didn’t need a basketball coach dictating my life.
Or so I thought.
Coach Gillis was a bit of an icon in the basketball world. I appreciate that much more now than I did then. He was an All-American at The University of California at Berkeley (Cal), where he had played under coach Pete Newell, who coached Cal to the 1959 NCAA championship. Rumor had it that Tandy held Jerry West to his lowest offensive point total in his college basketball career at West Virginia University. And if you don’t know Jerry West, he was good enough to have the logo of the NBA modeled after him. Tandy’s Cal Bears beat Jerry’s West Virginia team in the finals 71-70 that year!
Coach Gillis was all about defense. He could teach it like Einstein could teach physics. It was quite simple. He taught us to play an extraordinarily tight man-to-man defense by following two principles:
#1: “Crawl inside their jockstrap,” as he used to say, and deny every pass possible.
#2: Protect the baseline as if it were Fort Knox; Don’t let anyone with the ball go by.
Conceding on either point resulted in sprinting the lines up and down the court until you were ready to barf.
Coach John Wooden
Growing up as a basketball fan in SoCal meant you had to be aware of what the Wizard of Westwood (as Coach John Wooden was known) was doing on the basketball court at UCLA. It all started for me when I stayed up late with Dad to watch the KTLA Channel 5 replays of those UCLA games in the mid-1960s. I could not wait for the “Oh MYs” from announcer Dick Enberg as UCLA ran endlessly up and down the court, scoring at will, always ending up on the winning side. Dad would tell you that I usually fell asleep by halftime as the replays started at 11:00p.m.
The Wooden-coached UCLA Bruins won ten NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships (March Madness) over a period of twelve years (1964-1975), including seven in a row (1967-1973), and had four undefeated seasons (1964, 1967,1972, 1973).
However, I will never forget one loss in 1968 when the Houston Cougars and Elvin Hayes ended UCLA’s 47-game winning streak in what was billed as “the game of the century” at the Houston Astrodome.[i] I cried like a baby at the end of that game.
What Coach Wooden was doing was unprecedented in the sports world, and I could not help but be caught up in trying to understand it. Something was quite different about how this man approached the game. Amidst the myriad of UCLA victories, he inspired his players to find their very best within themselves while being as cool as a cucumber watching them do it from the bench.
Even during the tensest moments of a game when his team appeared rattled, he would let them play on without calling a time out. After the game, he was always very humble, giving credit to those around him before himself. Most unique of all, Coach Wooden never spoke about “winning.” His focus was on helping each player become the best they possibly could be on the court. He emphasized the importance of practice, telling his players that the games would go well if they practiced well. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Wooden’s unrivaled success was a puzzle I felt compelled to piece together to see if I could apply it to my life. Fast forward 20 years to Silicon Valley in 1992, and I was starting to see the picture. As soon as our two children, Marisa and Matthew, were old enough to play organized basketball, I entered the coaching ranks, determined to make amends for quitting Coach Gillis’ team in high school. I modeled my coaching around Coach Wooden’s now-famous “Pyramid of Success,”[ii] which summarized the building blocks required for success, both on the court and off.
Hard work was at its core, no getting around that with Coach Wooden. Once you had done the hard work, Wooden emphasized patience (“good things take time”), along with faith (“through prayer”) to be at your best when your best is needed. All this resulted in peace of mind that you could rest in the knowledge that you gave it your best effort. Coach Wooden would add, “You are the only one who truly can judge that!” Soon, I had every player on the team memorizing these pyramid blocks and reciting Wooden quotes during critical moments in a game or practice. The kids were terrific in embracing it, and of course, the parents loved taking the emphasis off winning.
Seek First The Kingdom of God
When I read Coach Wooden’s first book, They Call Me Coach; I discovered a crown jewel that had been missing in my puzzle. In discussing his beliefs on success, Coach Wooden quoted straight from the Bible:
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33, NIV).
Right there, in Chapter 13, Wooden spilled the story of his Christian faith and how basketball was of minor importance in comparison to belief in our Lord Jesus Christ. Coach Wooden carried a metal cross of Jesus in his pocket through all those many games at UCLA so he could hold on to it and be comforted by his Savior when things got difficult. He said he would rub the cross for comfort to the point that it had been worn down on the corners over the years.
This was the missing piece I had been looking for; it fit perfectly. It was so simple, yet so true. The mere idea of attaining peace of mind through faith in the cross in pursuit of success would be a theme that rang true for me in my career for the next two decades in Silicon Valley. I bought several metal crosses as reminders. Most remarkable of all was that Coach Wooden practiced what he preached. His players all looked up to him for his principles and commitment to his faith. He lived it! That set John Wooden apart and helped him see the level of success he achieved at UCLA.
The most challenging job of my career was as a field sales manager at Siemens (1993-94), with a $6 million annual sales quota of telecommunications systems. I managed ten sales representatives who fought daily battles for sales territories, new accounts, quota alignment, customer satisfaction, and that very elusive Purchase Order to win a deal against the competition. My Circle of Life centered on work and not much else. I was struggling to find peace of mind at the end of the day, whether I was achieving my sales quota or not. Each day I went home to my family battle-weary, struggling to find success in the midst of it all.
In a panic to find help, I decided to type a letter to Coach Wooden and ask for resources to apply his principles around the Pyramid of Success. It was a long shot; I was hoping someone in his office might respond. Within one week, I had a hand-written letter in a hand-written envelope to me from Coach Wooden himself.
He opened by thanking me for taking the time to write:
“Your words of commendation were very kind and deeply appreciated. Many thanks for taking the time to express yourself.”
Coach Wooden was truly demonstrating the principles he was teaching! I soon created a leadership model for my sales team around the Pyramid of Success. We overachieved our sales quota two years in a row while improving customer satisfaction ratings. The puzzle was complete.
“Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” -Coach Wooden
As a coach, father, and follower of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I have found Coach Wooden’s philosophy to be an excellent way to model the values our holy Bible teaches, both to children on the basketball court, as well as to adults in the business world. It enabled me to go home at the end of the day with a sense of contentment that regardless of how the day had gone, I gave it my best and had peace of mind in knowing that it now rested in God’s hands.[I]
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.” -Coach John Wooden
[i] Wooden authored and co-authored seventeen books before his death in 2010 at the age of 99. I have listed a couple of my favorites below. A google search on “John Wooden” will bring up many more. They all model the values and beliefs of this remarkable man.
“Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization” (2005) by John Wooden and Steve Jamison. Wooden’s strategies for competitive greatness translated into a leadership principles book for business or sports. A Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times bestseller.
“Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life” (2005) by John Wooden and Jay Carty. A translation of Wooden’s philosophy with the Pyramid of Success into a self-help handbook based upon each of the pyramid blocks.
“They Call Me Coach” (1988) by John Wooden This was his first book and a personal favorite. It describes his humble upbringing on a small farm in Indiana and how his relationship with his father impacted him. It also is the only one of his books that covers the UCLA basketball teams in quite a bit of detail, which I appreciated, having watched so many of those games.
[i] The UCLA Bruins were #1 rated in the country and had won 47 games in a row, including the NCAA Division I championships in 1964, 1965, and 1967. Houston was #2 in the country and led by Elvin Hayes, who scored 39 points (he could not miss!). A footnote is that UCLA’s star, Lew Alcindor (Kareen Abdul-Jabbar), had the worst game of his college career (making 4 of 18 shots), suffering from a severe eye injury the previous week (he sat out the two previous games). Two months later, UCLA destroyed Houston 101-69 on route to their fourth NCAA Championship.